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Highlights of Videogame Cultures 3

Spring Where does the games as art debate go now? How much do stereotypes of "the gamer" dominate and distort perspectives of games in culture? Can counterplay and co-creation in games change the relationship between the makers and players of games? Issues such as these were the focus of lively debate in-and-out of the conference halls at Videogame Cultures 3 in Oxford University’s Mansfield College.

The contemporary collision of traditional and the futuristic was underlined at this event by the architecture: the late Victorian “Queen Anne” style quadrangle building sits uncomfortably in the shadow of a modern steel-and-glass monstrosity that lurks in the background as if superimposed for an episode of Doctor Who. The oak wooden door to the conference eerily opens on its own as you approach.

I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I can honestly say that this was far more than a typical academic conference – the camaraderie of an industry event like GDC coupled with the intimacy of a small conference (fewer than forty people in attendance) led to great opportunities for lively discussions that commenced within the programme to leak outwards into the pubs of Oxford during the night, and on in many cases into the early hours of the morning.

Hosted by, an implausibly wild organisation that consists of hubs with titles like “Transformations” and “Evil”, and individual programmes on everything from Eroticism to Whiteness, I was slightly disappointed that for the most part it felt largely like a conventional game studies crowd – where were the psychologists, the economists, the law theorists? But this complaint is rather unjust since, as was pointed out to me, the event did feature presentations that offered radically diverse approaches to videogames, from literary and media theorists and virtual world researchers on one end of the scale through to philosophers and bloggers at the other, this was a long way from presenting a unified approach to the topics at hand, and all the better because of it. Besides, although interest in game studies is high at the moment and many universities now offer a degree in video game design or something equivalent, most discussion of game studies is still of a very low standard. That simply wasn't the case at this event.

My own presentation, a highly condensed version of Imaginary Games, was in the opening panel. This turned out to be one of my favourite sets of papers just because they fitted together so perfectly – Belgian philosopher and artist Christophe Bruchansky went first, presenting a semiotic approach to games that Corvus Elrod would have been proud of, then after my piece, Adam Ruch pushed the idea of a tyranny of 'game-fun’ while looking strangely like Corvus Elrod without the handlebar moustache. All three of us drew from each other’s papers on the fly, and the discussions afterwards became incredibly animated – especially on the matter of the artistic status and lack of esteem afforded the medium of games – setting a level of energy that was sustained for the most part throughout the conference.

Felan Parker’s later piece on artgames (referencing Passage, The Graveyard and The Marriage amongst others) put this issue of games as art into further context by considering the historical circumstances by which cultural products are legitimised as worthy of esteem, while Mathias Fuchs considered the use of ‘ludic interfaces’ in art installations and games, while also discussing how exciting new interfaces like the mouse quickly become “domesticated”. Julienne Greer delivered one of my favourite presentations of the conference, discussing digital companions in games such as Shadow of the Colossus (argo) and Portal (GLaDOS) from the perspective of an actress and a performer – as well as being the most consistently animated source of weird and wonderful new perspectives on just about everyone’s work.

Still in the context of the interface between games and art, conference chair Daniel Riha asked questions about whether the capacity for a simulation to be subverted in ways people find shocking is a viable argument for not exploring historical situations via games, while Kris Lee presented an early version of his artistically-motivated game that explores the experience of limerence – the romantic obsession with an individual that comes to dominate a person’s life as they fantasise about a fulfilment that may never happen. (This topic was to prove interesting in late night discussions after one too many glasses of The Singleton). Dimitrios Pavlounis’ discussion of co-creation also dealt with aesthetic issues, looking at the way a game like LittleBigPlanet conceals the labour of level design by pretending its play, while other games such as Minecraft seamlessly blend the two activities, and although not intended as an aesthetic exploration I found Rowan Tulloch’s analysis of health as a representation perfectly adapted to negative enforcement learning to be highly stimulating.

The question of subversion and transgression came up on many fronts. On one hand, it ranged from Cameron Vaziri’s account of the micro-resistance of players who subvert the political order internal to games to Dale Leorke’s exploration of counterplay and countergaming in the context of location based gaming. On the other, Jen Jenson and Nick Taylor denied sex-swapping in avatars can be construed as trangressive (emphasising their point by switching name badges for the conference), while Kelly Bergstrom and Steph Fisher explored the way gamers distance themselves from the stereotype of “that guy” – the sweaty basement addict with a lack of that mythical substance, self-control. Marian Carr arguably went further, suggesting that gender identity in hobbies were being distorted by the use of the term ‘gamer’, and contributing to the failure for the industry to attract female talent.

My favourite of the questions about transgression came from Nick Webber, whose spirited defence of the right for players to engage in griefing denied last-day fatigue to generate a flurry of fascinating questions and consequent discussions. Although not a griefer himself, Nick tore across the usual assumptions of how to deal with the topic, and suggested that policing against griefers did not reflect a social consensus, but rather a pandering to a vocal minority. This talk was only topped in the conference in terms of laying the smackdown by veteran firebrand Suzanne de Castell who bitch-slapped the entire field of virtual world research for the shoddiness of their methods in a polemic that was, frankly, richly deserved, but that will probably fall on rather deaf ears.

The ‘cultures’ part of the conference title was amply demonstrated in Cat Goodfellow’s descriptions of the connection between post-Soviet identity politics and Russian games, Marcelo Simão de Vasconcellos discussion of serious games for health communication in Brazil, and Philip Lin’s analysis of “militainment” from both a Western and Eastern cultural standpoint, while Jumanne Donahue proposed possible methods for capturing cultural value data in games in a voice like being bathed in honey. The theme also emerged in go-to-guy Ewan Kirkland’s discussion of the tacit prejudice of “orientalism” in LittleBigPlanet, although Ewan himself made perhaps a greater impact as the driving force behind the regular evening think-and-drink sessions, that grew later and later with each passing night.

The interdisciplinary aspect of the event worked in a slightly subtle fashion - Jan Argasiński’s case for game studies as software studies, for instance, felt like it was on its home turf despite operating against the conventional paradigm for game studies. Also, a nice touch was a set of workshops for attendees lacking in experience with games run by soon-to-be husband and wife team Monica Evans and Tim Christopher, while their colleague Jacob Naasz (inescapably looking like a younger, smarter Jack Black) discussed options for rapid prototyping that had me thinking about actually making a short videogame for the first time in years. 

Finally, this blog post would be incomplete without a shout out to Ben Abraham, who explored the capacity for bloggers to be considered domain experts. (During his session, I got to be Levi Bryant, which was a blast!) This talk lead to a challenge from me about the claim that “the Wikipedia is widely considered an expert” that produced fascinating perspectives from the whole panel on the topic of the infamous web resource, combining equal parts scepticism and respect for the epistemological credentials of the site. I spent my last night in the pub having a great discussion with Ben on everything from philosophy to Australian politics, before inviting the survivors up to my penthouse for one final, spirited, late-night discussion. The hangovers at breakfast the following morning were a badge of honour as we scattered to the four winds on a beautiful Monday morning…

It was the third of my five conferences this Summer, but the remaining two would have to be quite incredible to come even close to topping the fascinatingly eclectic collision of ideas at this event.

The opening image is Spring, by Vitor, taken from here on his Fractal Forest website with implicit permission. The artists retains all rights to this image.

Much Needed Refreshment (and Forthcoming Papers)

Right, I really needed that break from blogging… Frankly, I was feeling incredibly weighed down by the weight of academic papers that I had to write, and needed to focus on them. Here’s a list of all the papers, book chapters and presentations I’ve written or worked upon in the last month and a half:

  • “Player Typology in Theory and Practice” (with Rebecca Lowenhaupt and Lennart Nacke)
  • “BrainHex: Preliminary Results from a Neurobiological Gamer Typology Survey” (with Lennart Nacke and Regan Mandryk)
  • “Neurobiological Foundations for Player Satisfaction Modeling” (with Lennart Nacke) in Game Telemetry and Metrics (eds. Mady Seif El-Nasr and Anders Drachen)
  • “Chaotic Good in the Balance” in Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy (eds. Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox)
  • “Dungeons & Dragons & Dice &… Prop Theory for Role-Play”
    in Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy (eds. Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox)
  • “Prop Theory for Game Aesthetics”
  • “Orthodox Science Fiction and Fictional Worlds”
  • “Fictional Worlds in Films and Games”

That’s a lot of papers for someone who doesn’t work as an academic! Anyway, I now have this workload under better control, so with luck I should be able to get back into the blogging.

Blogging resumes again next week - hope to see you in the comments!

Call for Participants in a Serious Game Study

I’m posting this call for participants on behalf of the Save Energy project, which ihobo has been working on.

We're looking for participants to a study on serious gaming. The experiment is a part of EU funded SAVE ENERGY project. This project aims to help Europe to get greener by saving energy in public buildings. The experiment is a study of energy habits and awareness.

We ask for your cooperation for 3 months, during which time you'll be filling out questionnaires once a month (taking no more than 1 hour), receiving some information messages once a week, and invited to participate in some online activities. Each participant will be given a gift voucher worth €40 as a compensation for their efforts.

If you're aged 18 or older, with free time during the summer and access to a computer and you want to participate, contact us and we will send you further instructions. The experiments will start in the third week of May and continue until August.

Contact: Olli Haino (click for email)

What is Endured Always Enhances Enjoyment

It is one of the strangest aspects of play that whatever can be endured will ultimately serve to enhance the enjoyment of the player who perseveres. Tolerating repetition adds satisfaction to the completing task. Tolerating difficulty in challenges turns mere success into glowing victory. Tolerating frustratingly obscure puzzles leads to smug triumph when they are eventually cracked.

Of course, each of these ordeals to be endured will also exclude certain players from reaching their eventual rewards. Not everyone is willing to endure tedium, difficulty or obscurity. But it is striking to note that the same things which cause certain players to give up a game are the very things which make it worth playing for others. This is more than just ‘different strokes for different folks’ – it seems as if whatever a player will endure ultimately ends up enhancing the reward they experience.

BrainHex Succeeds Beyond Expectations

BrainHexInternational Hobo is pleased to announce the phenomenal success of their BrainHex player satisfaction model, which launched in August 2009 and received more responses in its first week than in the entire lifespan of its predecessor, DGD2. To date, the test has been taken by over 60,000 respondents, and the data is currently being analysed by the University of Saskatchewan. Multiple academic papers will be published later this year announcing the key findings of this research into how and why people play games.

Although data analysis has already begun, International Hobo will leave the BrainHex site up and running indefinitely, so that gamers can continue to take the test for their own enlightenment and amusement. It is possible that responses being collected now will still be used in future analyses.

We wish to thank everyone involved in the BrainHex project, especially Neil Bundy for his work on the test's backend code, Corvus Elrod for his work on the logos, Lennart Nacke and Regan Mandryk for their work on the statistical analysis, the countless people who helped publicise the test, and lastly the tens of thousands of players who provided the data. Thank you all!

What You Like and Dislike in Games

question_mark.ihobo What words do we use to discuss what we like and dislike about games? The words people use in specific contexts reveals something about their relationship with that aspect of life, and this is true of games as much as anything else.

What words would you use to describe what you like or dislike in the context of:

  • Game pacing, that is, the rate at which content is added to a game  e.g. “well-paced”, “slow” or a “grind”.
  • Virtual worlds, that is, the fictional worlds of games e.g. “beautiful”, “dark”, “dull” or “immersive”.
  • Mechanics, that is, the rules and systems of games e.g. “unbalanced”, “perfectly balanced” or “quirky”
  • Compulsiveness, that is, the extent to which a game captures and holds attention in the short or long term e.g. “addictive”, “compelling” or “replayable”.
  • Any other aspect of games I’ve not mentioned

Feel free to simply describe games you are currently playing or your favourite games in whatever words you choose – I’m interested in the words we already use to describe our play experiences, any anything in this respect could be useful.

Thanks for your assistance!

BrainHex: The Facebook Invasion

It seems that BrainHex was blogged at Geeks are Sexy, and has since started appearing in the Borg collective that is Facebook... as a result, we're experiencing a sudden rush of new data at the rate of about 3,000 responses a day. At this rate, we will have doubled our number of data points in just over a week! I'm hoping the infrastructure will hold up - we only really designed it to handle about 5,000 responses in total, so it's really being put to the test right now!

We're finally getting close to the data analysis stage, and I hope to have some results to share sometime in early 2011.

What is the Appeal of Brutal Games?

Mortal Kombat Although far from the most successful videogame titles developed, the games industry has a reputation for creating violent, brutal fantasies, and the sales for such titles are often solid. But what is the appeal of this kind of play?

The answer to this question is far from obvious. Comparison to cinema and book sales is instructive: while brutality and violence can be found in both these media, the step off in popularity is tangible. Apart from Jaws and The Godfather (incidentally, both book adaptations), there have been very few violent movies to make good money, and nothing truly brutal racks up good numbers at the box office. Book publishing is dominated by successful children's books, licensed novels and romance; brutality enjoys a minor cult market at best, although there are certainly signs that violent horror movies – being cheap to make, and not requiring expensive stars to draw in an audience – have carved out a viable niche market.

Now compare the paradigm cases of brutal videogames. Both Manhunt and MadWorld can be considered as largely unsuccessful titles (despite the tremendous media coverage generated by the former game), so the poster children for successful brutality in videogames are probably the Mortal Kombat, God of War and Gears of War franchises. The popularity of the former peaked in its early days, in the 1990s, and never cleared 3 million units (although in its day, with lower development and marketing costs, this was a massive commercial success). The G-War twins have had incredible development and marketing budgets, but still God peaked at 3.73 million with the first title, and has tailed off since, while Gears has been pulling in some 6 million punters each outing. (I am putting aside the GTA franchise here since, while undoubtedly violent, the games lean towards comic overtones, and generally avoid brutality).

Lets put this in perspective. On a fraction of the development and marketing budget of these games, Animal Crossing: Wild World sold twice as many units as any of these titles. Nintendogs was similarly developed on a fraction of the budget (although heavily marketed) and racked up 23.84 million units – more than all the violent games mentioned above combined. The high watermark games this year are equally lacking in brutality: New Super Mario Bros. Wii has already sold 15 million units, and Modern Warfare 2 has cleared 20 million units (benefiting in this case from sales on both the PS3 and the Xbox 360, while none of the other recent titles mentioned have been cross-platform). If one were to look at the market for videogames dispassionately, you would certainly see the commercial value of gun violence, but you would be forced to conclude that brutality, as such, wasn't the best horse to back.

So why all the money invested in brutal games – and especially, why all the marketing money invested into brutality? Continental philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek offers one possible diagnosis in his entertaining Channel 4 series The Pervert's Guide to Cinema:

You think it's just a game? It's reality. It's more real than it appears to you. For example, people who play videogames, they adopt a screen persona of a sadist, rapist, whatever. The idea is, in reality I'm a weak person, so in order to supplement my real life weakness, I adopt the false image of a strong, sexually promiscuous person, and so on and so on – but this would be the naïve reading: I want to appear stronger, more active, because in real life I am a weak person. But what if we read it in the opposite way, that this strong, brutal, rapist, whatever, identity is my true self (in the sense that this is the psychic truth of myself) and that in real life, because of social constraints and so on, I am not able to enact it. So that precisely because I think it's only a game, it's only a persona, a self-image, I adopt in virtual space, I can be there much more truthful. I can enact there an identity which is much closer to my true self.

Žižek's claim is thus that players of brutal games do so because they would wish to be this brutal in real life, but are prevented by social norms and so forth. I get the sense that Žižek wants us to take this claim as applying to a very wide range of individuals, but of course the sales figures we see for brutal games only account for at most 5% of the market for videogames. If Žižek's explanation is to carry any force at all, we would have to conclude that the players who buy and play the brutal videogames are closet sociopaths or, at the very least, would be given the right circumstances. He may be right – it's certainly not easy to prove or disprove such a claim – but I find something about this account suspicious.

David Jaffe, the creator of the God of War franchise, has said that his motivation was to create the kind of game he's always wanted to play – apparently, a highly brutal and violent version of Golden Axe, with added irritations and puzzles for maximum sense of triumph over adversity. So if Žižek is to be believed, Jaffe really wanted to be enacting brutal violence in the world about him, but was too domesticated to do so. The use of fantasy (e.g. bastardised Greek mythology) or science fiction settings (e.g. space marines) is justified by Žižek on the grounds that the positioning of the action away from realism permits the player fantasy to unfold without complication. The plausibility of this account is certainly open to debate.

I believe a clue lies elsewhere in Jaffe's career. His first (and to date only) PS3 title thus far has been the budget download game Calling All Cars!, a tightly competitive multiplayer knock-about, in the vein of his earlier Twisted Metal franchise but much more cutely presented. The design of the game is, to my mind at least, clearly motivated by the same factors I identified in Testosterone and Videogames, namely dominance play. Calling All Cars! is a playground that invites this masculine (but not wholly male) battle for supremacy, full of frustration and schadenfreude – the joy of screwing over your friends. And similarly, God of War's relationship with its player is clearly also drawing against testosterone-influenced play themes, in this case, frustrating the player so that they can achieve the ultimate hit of triumph (fiero) when they eventually overcome.

On this reading, Žižek's account must be read slightly differently: it is not that the fantasy fulfils an escapist need for the player to do what they would wish to do in real life so much as it is that the emotions of play correlate with the effects of testosterone. Žižek's psychoanalysis follows Jacques Lacan, and is thus ultimately in the Freudian school: libido is advanced as something of a universal answer in this tradition, and we can easily read testosterone for libido (with, no doubt, some objections). So if this is a valid interpretation, we shouldn't be surprised that the main audience for the G-War games are adolescent males, since these are the people experiencing the most disproportionate spike in testosterone levels.

Game studies researcher Jeroen Jansz published a paper in 2006 entitled The Emotional Appeal of Violent Video Games for Adolescent Males, in which the following claim was advanced:

...violent video games provide a gratifying context for the experience of emotions. The fact that gamers are largely in control of the game implies that they can voluntarily select the emotional situations they confront. This freedom is attractive for adolescents who are in the midst of constructing an identity. For them, the violent game is a safe, private laboratory where they can experience different emotions, including those that are controversial in ordinary life. Gamers may deliberately select emotions that sustain dominant masculine identity (e.g., anger), as well as emotions that are at odds with dominant masculinity (e.g., fear).

In other words, the adolescent male (according to Jansz) is struggling to work out who they are, who they are becoming, and the (single player) videogame provides a safe space for them to experiment with their emotions and in so doing construct a viable identity. This is not wholly divorced from Žižek's account, but it does put it into a different context, and also supports my general interpretation of brutal games in terms of testosterone as the key influencing factor. (Of course, Jansz has no explicit explanation for why Jaffe would want to make a game like God of War as a fully grown adult. But this line of enquiry can only lead to the question of why any adult would work in an industry that still principally targets teenage males, and that discussion risks being tangential: we do not ask this question, for instance, of teachers or toy-makers).

I suspect there is a grain of truth in Žižek's explanation, in so much as it expresses the drive to dominance associated with the psychological effects of testosterone, but Jansz's account does more to explain why brutal games are principally purchased and enjoyed by adolescent males. The final point to raise in this regard is the logic of the publishers in focussing so much money and attention on the G-War games. In part, no doubt, there are sound commercial concerns at work. Adolescents have the time to play games, and thus are a key market. But as the sales figures quoted above show, there's a disproportionate spend by publishers on brutal games that we don't find in any other media industry.

My suspicion, which I have voiced before, is that this reflects the high testosterone levels among marketing executives, who are the individuals with the most influence in the pathways to funding within the upper market for videogames. James McBride Dabbs has shown that marketing executives (both male and female) have statistically some of the highest testosterone levels of any profession – whether because this job market is particularly competitive, or because competitive people are drawn to it because of the high pay and expense accounts, the marketing profession remains dominated by psychological effects of testosterone.

Perhaps the giant marketing spends by Microsoft and Sony on the G-War games is a reflection of this concentration of testosterone in the ranks of the marketing departments – or perhaps I should say the executive department of these organisations, since as one developer quipped to me recently, there is no distinction between executives and marketing when it comes to the upper ranks of a platform holder like Sony and Microsoft. To be a high level executive is to be concerned with marketing. What is certain, however, is that Nintendo has made gigantic leaps in sales and profitability by designing games beyond the testosterone box and hiring marketing firms outside of the videogames space to promote their DS and Wii platforms.

Brutal games will probably always have a role in the market for games. But it seems possible that their commercial value might slide gradually towards that of the viable niche market of brutal films. If Sony and Microsoft are serious about trying to capture some of the wider market that Nintendo has currently cornered, they should think twice about the mass market advertising campaigns for games like those in the God of War and Gears of War franchises: since these games are only selling to gamer hobbyists anyway, the effect of such public displays will be to connect the PS3 and 360 platforms in the minds of a wider audience with brutality. And this, ultimately, will be counter-productive to reaching a wider audience for games.

Do you enjoy brutal games? Or do you dislike them? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Someone's Doing My Brain Research

19549_rel Not that long ago, I suggested that studying the size of brain regions would be a valuable way of exploring the neurobiology of play, a conclusion I reached after learning that one of the hippocampi of taxi drivers is bigger than those of a control group. And this research, I'm pleased to say, is taking place. Via Raph Koster (thanks Raph!), I learned today of a new study exploring the size of the nucleus accumbens (pleasure centre) and two key structures in the striatum (the limbic system's link to the decision centre) - two of several brain features I'm interested in.

The research is by Art Kramer (pictured above, left) at Illinois, Ann Graybiel of MIT (centre), and Kirk Erickson of the University of Pittsburgh (right). The short form of their findings is as follows:

  • Players with a larger pleasure centre (nucleus accumbens) did better in the early stages of the study i.e. began learning more quickly. This suggests that a large pleasure centre increases motivation to perform (an expected result).
  • Players with a larger caudate nucleus and putamen, two key features of the striatum (the limbic system-end of the decision centre) performed better at variable priority training i.e. practising and learning different skills dynamically, within the framework of the overall goal. (This is also an expected result, but is less well studied).

The striatum is beginning to emerge as a key part of adaptation in learning. Whereas both the pleasure centre and the striatum are involved in learning, the former drives habit formation, while the latter seems to be more involved in adaptability and dynamic response. Furthermore, the striatum appears to be directly involved in executive function (i.e. it links to the orbito-frontal cortex - the decision centre). There is much less research on the latter than the former, which is one of the reasons this new study is particularly interesting.

This research requires me to make a slight change in my hypothetical research programme - I had been thinking in terms of a bigger decision centre (orbitofrontal cortex) for strategically minded players, but this could be hard to detect. The striatum, which links the decision centre to the limbic system (the "reptile brain"), is a more obvious place to look for changes in volume. Now I can confidently predict that people who test Rational on Temperament-style personality tests, university science students, and players who enjoy complex strategy games, will show a statistical prevalence for dorsal striatum that are larger than the mean size. (And also, that those three groupings I cite will cross-correlate reasonably well).

Unsurprisingly, this new research supports the "games as learning" model because the focus of this study are the brain centres involved in the dopamine/learning system. However, it would be premature to use this as evidence that learning will provide a complete theory of play or fun - I believe it is already clear that it cannot, since Biederman and Vessel's research on interest and curiosity is memory-focused, not learning focussed (although still links to the pleasure centre). Furthermore, there is still little or no neuroscience providing for a model of imagination, and without this (and more besides!) there can be no complete theory of games. What we can be confident of - and what Koster correctly predicted - is that any complete theory of games and fun must feature learning as a key part of the story. What the new research does suggest is that learning may be more important in the play of people with larger dorsal striatum - such as the three groupings I suggested above.

However, we should be careful of jumping to the assumption that what is implied here in terms of differences in brain structure sizes is wholly genetic - it certainly wasn't in the case of taxi drivers, and I doubt it is here. Genetics and environment probably both have a role, but the taxi driver study suggests what we do is more important than our genetic blueprint when it comes to the size of brain regions. I find this aspect of the current brain research to be encouraging, as it maintains an important role for the self in discovering and inventing who we shall become.